It began as just another day. Nothing special. But Pakistan is always a ‘big story’ for an Indian correspondent based in Islamabad. I was pegging away, trying to put together a report for the next day’s paper. When suddenly the phone rang. “What have you guys done?” an irate journalist friend, Imtiaz Gul, told my wife, Minu, who happened to pick up the telephone. “Tum logon ne test kar diya!”
Minu couldn’t figure out what Imtiaz was saying. “Just turn on your television,” he said and hung up. Minu shouted out at me as she put on the TV. It was ‘the Buddha’. He had smiled again. On May 11, 1998, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government had tested India’s nuclear weapons’ capability. In 1974, when India tested its nuclear capability, a rather incongruous phrase was used as a description: ‘The Buddha has smiled’. If the Buddha was ‘smiling’ again in Pokhran, the Pakistanis were snarling in Pakistan. Little did I realise that my small world was about to change. For the next fortnight and more, I was the face of the Indian State in Islamabad. Wherever I went — to a press conference, to a diplomatic reception — it was clear that the nuclear fission in Pokhran had set off a chain reaction across the border.
It’s important to remember that the days of 24-hour news had started in India. And all those channels could be seen in Pakistan. Days after the tests, Vajpayee could be seen unsheathing a sword presented to him by a Sikh delegation. It was an image that was played over and over again on Pakistani TV. In the end, the tension got the better of me. I began carrying Vajpayeeji’s office phone and fax numbers for my incensed Pakistani friends. At least they could convey their protests to the right quarter and not take it out on poor old me.
My nightmare ended 17 days later — when the Pakistanis tested their own nuclear devices. As Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that day, Pakistan had “settled the score”.
It was a barbadi... oops... barabari ka rishta again. I slept peacefully on May 28. Amit Baruah was smiling again.